The sound of my screams certainly sent the house staff scrambling.
The door to my guest-room-prison was opened, and two starched-hatted maids in black dresses and white aprons peered blanched faces at me before darting down the stairs in a cumbersome tandem, gingerly calling for the lady of the house.
I heard Mrs. Northe muttering under her breath as a swift tread up the stairs came closer and closer.
"I have to go to him, Jonathon," I cried. "He's in
." I could feel my panic rising, calling out to her even before she entered the room. "He said to let him go and save myself, I don't know what to do, what he'll do, I have to—" England
"You're not going anywhere, Natalie," she murmured, her tone more weary than I'd heard it for some time as she turned the corner into the room. She was dressed down; in a plain workaday linen skirt, white blouse with sleeves rolled up, and an open linen vest, she must have been at work on something. She moved to a water basin by my bedside. She dipped a cloth in water and ran it over my forehead that I only now noticed was warm for the contrast of cool water.
The next piercing physical sensation was how much my wrists hurt. I must have been wresting against my restraints in whatever level of precarious state I'd been in. The sight of the bonds made me freshly fierce.
"I will find him, I will find Jonathon," I cried. A wave of anger that felt foreign and reckless, huge and unwieldy, crested inside me like a cat extending claws. While the impetus of emotion was mine, it's scope was something that I could only imagine that the Master's Society would want to exploit in their endless drive to further misery... I tried to trade the anger for pleading, thinking I might get further on that sentiment, staring up into Mrs. Northe's wide, piercing hazel eyes that missed no detail and seemed to know me too well. "I know where he is, he told me, I have to go—"
"You know I can't enable a mere sentence from a dream," Mrs. Northe said gently. "But tell me more about the dream." She dipped the cloth again and soothed my brow, fussing over me but making no move to undo my restraints. "I do appreciate that you often reveal clues—"
"Don't treat me like a prisoner."
"Tell that to the man you threw a punch at before Nathaniel managed to wrestle you to the floor downstairs," she replied. I could feel the color drain from my face. "Not that it was your fault," she added, "but we must take the greatest care. I think you're in the clear now, my dear, and I'd like to unlash you, but let's be careful here, let's see how you deal with what you're telling me, let's just talk a bit, you and I, so I can ascertain your mood and your physical reactions."
"Did...did the demon overtake me?" I asked sheepishly, trying to think back to what I dimly recalled as maybe having been an exorcism... "The demon, the one we destroyed, it...it spoke to me through that poor man George... At least, I thought it did..."
"I believe you were merely in the grip of the toxin. Parts of you remained distinctly...you. Stubborn. Passionate. Opinionated. Hating to be restrained." She chuckled. "Reverend Blessing was here with me as I would suffer no possible risk to your soul. Your father was relatively terrified, but seeing that you had a small army around you, save Jonathon, he knew you were being taken care of. It didn't follow that you were actually possessed. Truth be told, I think you're too spirited for anything to have room in there," she said smiling, tapping me on the sternum.
I felt a partial smile break through my anxiety. I tried to get a read on my body, my heart rate, my skin, the parts that ached, what seemed natural or unnatural. I tried to breathe and relax as she spoke. I needed to appear well. I needed to be well. Mrs. Northe continued, maintaining a calm, soothing tone as if her words were extensions of the cool compress.
"And I'm not sure we should be thinking of the demon as just one, but rather, a negative force. I've been in my study, writing letters to my gifted friends to see if they've wind of a shift in their séances or communications with the dead. I've been trying to make contact with spirits myself, to seek a window in, to see if a whole army of hell is upon us or just isolated bodies of negativity seeking hosts—"
"Mother," I blurted. "Did you speak with my mother?"
Mrs. Northe shook her head. "She remains elusive. Not out of love, I'm sure, but..."
I looked away, another wave of emotion threatening to drag me under. I needed to remain sane. I needed to get out of this damned bed, and no further fits would get me out of it any faster. Mrs. Northe took her cue and changed the subject.
"If something was possessing George, it left with George, who remains comatose in a nearby hospital, with a police officer on guard. It would seem the toxin does like to feed upon emotion. Hence Veil's Association being quite the group to target. Lovely people, truly, though I had to eventually insist they all leave my home after all the events."
"Did they overstay their welcome?"
"Ah, no, they just like finery as a whole, it would seem, and I'm not sure any of them are much used to fine homes, so they were a bit entranced here. I admit, I did, once you were seen to, have quite a wonderful conversation with Mister Zhee about
Peking. Amazing city, Peking. I'll have to take you sometime." Mrs. Northe said this so casually as if were not on the other side of the world but just a train ride away. I supposed, for the wealthy, distances were not as long or as implausible. She was examining my limbs and skin as she continued speaking. China
"He misses it very much. His wife, of course, he misses more so. What a shame this country won't let the women of his country in. Who can begrudge a man for taking work when it's offered and wanting to be with his family while he does it? Is this not a city were the world comes to make their way?"
This was news to me that only men of
were allowed here and not the women. How painful. Mrs. Northe seemed satisfied with the look of me; at least I couldn't discern any concern on her face, and while she did not unwind my bindings entirely, she did loosen them as she continued: China
"It seems one of the Association members managed to extract Zhee from a crime syndicate that kept him as if he were a slave. Frightening what people will exploit from the needy. That Association"—she shook her head in amazement—"is filled with amazing stories of resilience and reinvention. No one there is exactly as they seem, and every last one of them has a fighting spirit in them that utterly defies their romanticisms. Zhee is now a valuable asset to Veil, a guard and friend, teaching Veil about the East and about the various disciplines he practices. Veil is like a sponge. I've never seen anyone drink up and absorb more details; he is an endless student of the world. Ridiculous and irascible, but what a good heart inside that restless, attention-seeking body. Maybe one day he'll even commit it to that poor, pining Lavinia." She chuckled, leaning close to murmur the last, as Lavinia was likely in the house, still '"recovering'" until she made her own way.
I hoped, for Lavinia, that Veil would do just that, help them build a life together now that she'd lost her parents' blessing, good will, and fortune. Fortune.
"Now, can you speak about the dream without an adverse reaction?" Mrs. Northe prompted.
I took a deep breath. I thought of that terrible corridor and tried not to relive the horrible sensation of its collapse, of being trapped, of watching Jonathon disappear from me...
"Jonathon is gone," I managed to say after a moment. "Back in
or at least en route. He was telling me I couldn't follow, and something about numbers, about the sequence, about that being important." England
"Would he not have told us he was traveling again? He said nothing to me, were you informed—"
"I think the spy must have dragged him away before he could write," I replied. As Mrs. Northe's eyebrows raised, I bit my lip. I remembered we hadn't ever told her about Brinkman. I swallowed hard. "Oh. Yes. There was a spy in town."
"Really? Is that so? And when were you going to mention that to me, pray tell? Were you ever going to—"
"For his safety, we thought we'd not—"
Mrs. Northe batted her hand to stop me. "Well, Rupert—Senator Bishop," she hastily corrected herself from the easy familiarity, "will want to know that. I knew you were hiding something, something important, but I thought maybe it was just that Jonathon had stolen your virtue or something—"
"No!" I protested, my face growing hot with a furious blush. "He's a gentleman—"
"A spy,” she continued, as if she hadn’t even heard me. I blushed even brighter but lest she think ‘the lady doth protest too much’ I let the matter go and she continued; “How very interesting. Espionage. And you think this spy made off with Jonathon?"
"Why else would he not leave a note? Or send a telegraph via Morse, for transcript from the steamer? Relying on our dreams for information shouldn’t be trusted without circumspection. I'd like to think he'd not hide his exit from me unless it was hasty, and that he was in danger. Society operatives must have trailed him and found him, so he ran. I hope I can trust Brinkman to keep him safe in the meantime. Until I can get there."
"You're not getting there, Natalie, I can't possibly—"
"You can't expect me to just lie here—"
Her hazel eyes now flashed at me like lightning. She was shaking. "I could never live with myself, I...I just can't, Natalie. There are things I know, things that Amelia told me before she passed, things I've intuited—"
"About what? You can't play that game with me again; you withheld things from me before, about what the spirits said, about what my mother's spirit said—"
"The simple fact is if you go to
, your father will never trust me again for putting you in direct danger. And he'd never again trust you. And he shouldn't—" England
"Why? Why do you even care about my father? More so than me?" I blurted finally. She turned to me and smiled, and in that smile and the soft, nurturing look in her eyes, I felt the full breadth and scope of my youth in comparison to the life she'd lived, and I felt very small.
"Natalie Stewart. Let's not play games with who has more of my affection."
"What do you even see in my father?" I grumbled, suddenly very resentful I woke up screaming and he was not there, as if this whole maddening part of my life just didn't include him at all. "When I went under, did he just stand in the corner being terrified, when you were doing things, or did he step up and acknowledge what's going on? Where is he now?"
"He is at work, so you can keep the roof over your head—"
"But truly, I ask you, what do you see in him, he's not of your league—"
"Natalie Stewart, you listen to me right now! Don't you dare for one more moment let that toxin inside of you make you more ungrateful than you already are." I'd never heard her take such a scolding tone, and I was taken aback. She took a deep breath. "Your father is a quiet, kind, intelligent man who treats me not as an inferior species. You'd be surprised how rare that is. While aware of my wealth and status, he does not put me upon a pedestal, for that is just as alienating. He meets me eye to eye and mind to mind. He shares his thoughts and is interested, genuinely, in mine. He has a quiet confidence that does not seek to dominate me but allows me my strengths as I would allow anyone theirs. This is a very difficult quality to find in men of this age, my dear.”
Her tone shifted from this spirited defense of my father to something more gently world-weary. “You've been spoiled by Jonathon, a man of a forward mind, dear. You don't really know the sorts of gentlemen that are out there, seeking to strangle a woman and keep her forever at heel, forever seen as solely domestic, forever out of realms of thought, employment, rights, and issues considered too intense for our 'delicate' sensibilities.” She bit upon her words as if they were sour. “Delicacy be damned. Delicate is for lace, and I look damned fine in lace, but my spirit should not be confused with what I wear."
I sat with all these words a moment, utterly taken aback by this chastisement, surprised by the depth of response, and suddenly I felt a pride in my heart for the man who had always tried to do right by the women of his life. I imagined, from what I'd heard about my mother, she'd have said something similar. Seeking out powerful women only meant he was confident enough in himself not to have anything to prove. Nothing but love. And the pursuit of art. Ah, what a poet's soul I'd come from. The emotions that had been so thick and violent within me now made me want to do nothing but weep. I had to hold myself together.
And I had to do right by my father. I couldn't just disappear to
, even if I did manage to escape from under Mrs. Northe's watch and board the next steamer. I owed him more than that. But he'd never let me go. And yet I had to go. Would it come down to choosing which of the men in my life was more important? The man who raised me or the man I hoped I'd someday marry? That wasn't fair, was it, to have to choose? England
I looked up at her pleadingly, and that was no ploy, it was simply how I felt. "I have to do something. I can't just lie here... Surely there's something to do, to stop the evil creeping in..." I trailed off, remembering what else Jonathon had said. "The numbers. The numbered sequence. I think he might have meant that sequence that Crenfall was repeating. It's important. Very. I truly think lives hang upon us knowing what it refers to."
The look on her face proved she was taking this as deathly seriously as I was; altered state or no.
(End of Chapter 14 -- Copyright 2013 Leanna Renee Hieber, The Magic Most Foul saga - If you like what you see, please share this link with friends! Tweet it, FB, + it! The Magic Most Foul team really hopes the audience will continue to grow and it can only do so with YOUR help! If you haven't already, do pick up a copy of Magic Most Foul books 1 and 2: Darker Still and the sequel: The Twisted Tragedy of Miss Natalie Stewart and/or donate to the cause! Donations directly support the editorial staff.
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